The Word Among Us

June 2011 Issue

A Letter from St. Luke

What would he say to us today?

By: Father George T. Montague, SM

“Well, let me think about it,” I answered, when I was asked to write this article about St. Luke and the Holy Spirit. Years ago, I dedicated a large section of one of my books to Luke’s presentation of the Spirit in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles.

But that writing was rather scholarly. This request was for something that would engage readers who are not necessarily biblical scholars. So I began to ask myself: What might Luke say to us today about the Holy Spirit? What would our world and the church look like through Luke’s eyes? What kind of letter would he write us if he came and visited our parishes? Here is what I came up with as I prayed and reflected on these questions.

Beloved Brothers and Sisters, It has been quite a shock for me—but also a delight—to move from writing on parchment or papyrus to a computer. I never expected that I would be able to fl y from one city to another, and I certainly was amazed to discover the world of television, blogs, iPads, and iPods.

I can only imagine what Paul would have done with all these ways to evangelize! And here I am, writing a message about the Holy Spirit that hundreds of thousands of you will soon read online or in print.

You know how excited I was about the Holy Spirit when I wrote my Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. I told how Jesus was conceived by the Spirit and how that Spirit launched him on his mission. I described how the Spirit came on the disciples with wind and fire, and how these disciples turned the world upside down as they spread that fire over the whole earth. The Holy Spirit turned sinners into saints, wounded people into healers, and ordinary folks into courageous missionaries. That, of course, was what I expected to find when I came to you.

What did I find? Well, to my great joy I found a lot of Spirit-inspired activity. Your missionaries have gone out to the ends of the earth, and I was amazed at your numbers—over a billion Catholic Christians worldwide! I was pleased that my Gospel—together with Mark’s, Matthew’s, and John’s—is nourishing the faith of so many people every Sunday. And your work with the poor! I gave the poor lots of coverage in my writings (remember the Rich Man and Lazarus?), so your many works of mercy are dear to my heart.

I praise God for the incredible fruits that his word has borne in you. But with Paul, I want to urge you to make even greater progress (1 Thessalonians 4:1).

Many of you are struggling; some of you have a heavy cross to bear, and you are not complaining. But I sometimes wonder if you have adequately embraced the power available in the Holy Spirit.

Beyond “I Believe.” Do you remember when Paul found a dozen disciples in Ephesus and asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit? They replied, “We have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2). I’m sure none of you would ever say that, because every Sunday in the creed, you profess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” But do you realize what you are saying?

When I review the stories of the early church that I told in Acts, I see the excitement, the joy, the explosion of praise, and the passion to proclaim the good news that came out of the first Pentecost. When you read those stories, you feel like shouting: “Someone has risen from the dead! His name is Jesus, and he’s sent his Holy Spirit as the beginning of our own resurrection! Come join us! We’re not perfect, but we’ve found the fountain of life—the Holy Spirit of Jesus!”

Saying “I believe in the Holy Spirit” is crucial, but God has so much more for us! It’s not enough just to receive the Holy Spirit in baptism and confirmation. That got the Holy Spirit in. We need to let him out.

What does it look like when you let the Spirit out? Well, it looks like the church I described in Acts.

People Who Praise. First of all, it takes praise seriously—or better, joyously! I’m glad that many of you have discovered the Spirit’s gift of praise. But I’ve also noticed that some Christians hold back, not even opening their song books at Mass.

Perhaps they can’t sing, but they could at least make a joyful noise (Psalm 66:1). Maybe they think they are not worthy. Well, nobody is. The Holy Spirit makes the unworthy worthy. Paul said the Holy Spirit makes us cry out, “Abba, Father!” (Galatians 4:6). “Cry out” doesn’t mean mumble. It’s like a child shouting “Daddy!” when his father comes home from a long trip.

Just as at Pentecost, praise is the grand entryway to other spiritual gifts. Even if you don’t pray in tongues the way I describe in Acts (2:11; 10:46), or as Paul does in his letters, people who let the Spirit praise God through them find that they begin to get what you might call the gift of ears: They start to hear the word of God in a new “here and now for me” way. When they share this word of God with others, it’s called the gift of prophecy. But prophecy begins with hearing the now word of God, which is available to anyone who yields to the gift of praise.

Equipped to Witness. Another way we early Christians let the Holy Spirit out was by placing our hands on the sick and asking God to heal them. In fact, it was through healing prayer that we introduced many people to Jesus. Most Christians I meet today, however, don’t seem to believe that God will heal people through their prayer and laying on of hands. That’s for the saints, they think. Rubbish! Jesus said if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move mountains. That’s as true now as it was in the first century.

Of course, healing is more than physical miracles. The biggest healing of all is just meeting Jesus. So let me take this opportunity to ask: Have you met Jesus in a personal way? Or is he someone you just know about? The Holy Spirit can introduce him to you in person.

Another way the Holy Spirit showed Jesus to the world was by empowering the early Christians to witness and evangelize. When I met them, I was astounded at how boldly they spoke about Jesus. Some of them even went joyfully to martyrdom.

I see this is happening today as well, especially in certain parts of the world. And I know, too, that among you there are many who suffer in other ways and who carry your daily crosses with patience and even joy. Take heart, and call often on the Holy Spirit! The power that sustains the martyrs can sustain you as well.

Building the Body. Yours is a very individualistic world. I am surprised that so many people live a “Jesus and me” spirituality and see no need to relate or meet regularly with other Christians. This is not what Jesus had in mind. Nor is it what happened in those early years when I wrote my Gospel and Acts.

What we experienced was the Holy Spirit building community (see Acts 2:42-47). The Spirit inspired and equipped each of us to serve as spiritual bricklayers and carpenters to create the magnificent temple that the church is meant to be. We loved to be together, because the Spirit helped us to see the church as our primary community. We had our own version of social networking, but we used it to build the church first of all.

And our first job was within our own families. You might remember that I described what Pentecostal life looked like in an extended family— that of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1–2). Reread those chapters, and notice how often the Holy Spirit appears. Here, it’s not only Jesus who has the Holy Spirit but his whole family—and they foreshadow what will happen to the church at Pentecost! I wanted my readers, especially families, to see that you don’t have to preach the gospel in foreign lands to be sent by the Holy Spirit. You can have a domestic Pentecost right in your home.

There’s only one Holy Family, it’s true. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, there could be multitudes of holy families. So let the Spirit fill you and your family.

But how, you ask. Ask! That’s how. Remember Jesus’ words: “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). And remember that when you ask, you aren’t just asking the Father to get the Holy Spirit in. You are also asking for the grace to let the Spirit out. And as Paul said, that means to “strive eagerly for the spiritual gifts” (1 Corinthians 14:1).

Go for the Gift! So open your mouth and begin praising the Lord. When you run out of words, just let syllables tumble out of your mouth (that’s the gift of tongues). Then, after saturating yourself with praise, be still and listen for the voice of God. It might come to you in an image or a word, or when you open the Bible and read a passage. And when people ask you to pray for them, do it right then and there. Hold their hands or place your hands on their shoulder, and pray in your own words.

Expect God to act. He will. Jesus guaranteed it: “If you . . . know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13).

George T. Montague, a Marianist priest, is professor of biblical theology at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, and former president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America.